One week removed from the 67th California Invitational Relays, we submit questions.
Is Modesto still pleased about its status in the track and field universe? Does the annual Saturday in May connect with the public at large? If not, does the relatively new barbecue and music street fair on Tully Road make it palatable? Will Coca-Cola and Save Mart retain their connection?
Let's respond, point by point:
STATURE -- Today's adidas Track Classic at Cal State Dominguez Hills approximates the Relays' vision. It's a Visa Championship Series event that lures a top-flight field deeper and more attractive than Modesto's. Local officials recognized years ago that Modesto has been bypassed on track and field's must-go list. Tradition and longevity, merged with a pedigree that includes 32 world records, apparently do not count in today's corporate-driven market. Former USA Track & Field boss Craig Masback reasoned in the past that Modesto couldn't be a series venue because it was too far from a large airport.
THE MEET -- The weather, warm and comfortable, was the best in about a decade. The field, a notch better than normal with the Olympics looming this summer, produced a good if not high-impact day. Shot putter Christian Cantwell and pole vault star Jenn Stuczynski both posted world-leading marks, and sprinter Lauryn Williams validated her marquee status by doubling in the 100 and 200 meters. Mike Rodgers' 10.06 in the 100 indicated that Modesto Junior College Stadium's new sky-blue Atlas latex track will yield some speed over the next five years. Khadevis Robinson stamped himself as one of the Relay's all-time favorites by winning for the sixth consecutive year in the 800.
ATTENDANCE -- The estimated 3,000, probably fewer than last year, was disappointing to most who've followed the Relays long-term. If I'm a sponsor, I'm exasperated. The affair offers the whole package: reasonably-priced family fun, things to do for children, tasty food, music and, by the way, a good track meet. Like everything these days, people require Level Four reasons to break up their weekend routine. Relays meet director Gregg Miller understands the translation: He must trot out a star, a Jeremy Wariner, Allyson Felix or a Tyson Gay. To do so takes a big check, perhaps one with six figures. That's a tall mountain to climb for the modestly-funded Relays, especially when athletes are lured by cha-ching on the same day to places like Doha, Qatar, or Osaka, Japan.
PRESENTATION -- Relays officials, remembering the many gaffes last year -- especially with audio -- worked hard to present a better meet. Music and public-address announcers didn't intrude on the action, and the popular youth races were wrapped up before the featured program. The annual youth lap, led once again by Mike Powell, linked the youth with the meet. Unfortunately, the absence of a video screen -- the first time since Save Mart jumped on board in 1999 -- blemished the fans' experience. Miller attributed the setback to an 11th-hour loss of a key sponsor. The video board is more than just a creature comfort for spectators. It's viewed by some as a barometer of the Relays' commitment. Organizers must remind themselves that the track competition has been around much longer than the barbecue competition.
THE FUTURE -- A pleasing development was MJC's approval of a permanent display to honor the late Tom Moore, the meet director for decades. We've always preferred a statue of Moore, gun raised in his familiar pre-race pose, so future generations remember his major contributions. Regardless on what is eventually chosen, it probably will be located in an open triangular area near the start of the sprints -- Moore's home base -- or where most fans enter the stadium. Either spot is acceptable. More important is having it done by May of 2009.
THE SPORT -- Keeping the Relays viable and relevant has not been easy. Track and field often stumbles in the public eye. Marion Jones, Steve Riddick and Tim Montgomery all have been convicted in connection with the same check-fraud scheme. Justin Gatlin, the "world's fastest human" not so long ago, serves a four-year ban for testing positive for a banned substance. These four athletes account for eight Olympic gold medals. Worse, they were trumpeted as icons. Their fall from grace signals continued issues with track's credibility, which taxes the drawing power of all events. What's most amazing and admirable, given the difficult timing, is Modesto's determination to stay the course. Clearly, many supporters believe it's still worth the effort because it underscores the city's can-do attitude.
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.